The outside world only “discovered” it in 1994, and scientists are still unsure of how it came into being.
When looking down from orbit at the rural Chongqing Municipality in southwest China, a series of deep, dark gashes may be seen, denting the earth like an alien footprint. Some specialists question whether a meteorite’s impact on Earth could have caused these puzzling structures. Others claim that they developed gradually over a period of 128,000 years when water seeping into underground rivers cut the limestone rock in its path.
The heavenly pit
But one thing is certain: China’s Xiaoxhai Tiankeng, at 660 metres deep and 130 million cubic metres in size, is the world’s deepest and largest sinkhole.
Tiankeng, which translates to “The Heavenly Pit,” has sheer sides that descend to a genuine underworld where 1,285 different plant and animal species, including the rare ginkgo and clouded leopard, live in a vibrant ecology. The formation is distinctive not just for its enormous size but also for being a double-nested sinkhole holding two craters connected by a sloping edge. An underground river and cave network are nourished at the pit’s base by a waterfall that pours from the pit’s mouth during the wet season.
Locals have known about the sinkholes for generations, but British explorers’ attempts to investigate its maze-like underground cave system in 1994 were what the outside world first “discovered.” Speleologists attempted to map the underground river five times over a ten-year span, but the team was never successful because they considered the pouring stream too challenging to manage. As a result, one of China’s greatest geological mysteries continues to be this deep, dark abyss.
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